Guest Column: Rockford schools: Slick or sticky business?

April 25, 2012

By Jane Hayes

Slick! That’s what I call the presentation done by Alignment Rockford and Rockford Public School District 205 Tuesday, April 17, at Auburn High School.

The PowerPoint and video presentation by Dr. Ehren Jarrett was professional and slick, and suggested the financial backing of businesses throughout the Rockford community, in particular Alignment Rockford.

In the presentation, Dr. Jarrett introduced the public to the academy approach, which creates small learning environments with a career focus. Interviews of Jefferson High staff members, who were sent to Nashville, Tenn., by our district to observe the Alignment Nashville model, were glowing. Local interviews of community movers and shakers stressing the importance of an educated workforce from Rockford were pertinent. Also, interviews of members from Alignment Nashville itself and staff from Glencliff and McGavock high schools in Nashville were positive.

Praising small learning academies for their “Rigor, Relevance, Relationships and Readiness” was established early and often. Slick and professionally-printed cards were given to attendees to write questions, concerns and feedback.

This just sounds so good, right? Think about it … schools supported by our community, important businesses and professional people throughout Rockford. What, if anything, is wrong with this picture? Well, first, the questions posed by many WEE (Watchdogs for Ethics in Education) members were not answered. Our group wonders how many unanswered or edited questions went unanswered by the panel of school and community members, which lacked diversity and transparency, in my estimation. Were our questions too sticky to address?

So, WEE will ask them rhetorically. First, how do you compare Rockford to Nashville, Tenn., which was awarded a major part of a $500 million federal grant, Race to the Top, to implement their academy structure? Second, what about all our current students? Why can’t we challenge them to think about careers, colleges and/or future goals? Why doesn’t our district promote the current small learning environments instead of outsourcing them? What will be done for students who choose not to be a part of the academy structure? Or is that not an option?

Good grief! Don’t think for one minute that the professional educators of WEE are not in favor of better schools. Most of us have lived in Rockford all our adult lives, earned our livelihoods here, sent our own children to public schools in Rockford, and still pay outrageous property taxes here.

We want to see public education thrive and have seen so many fads in education come and go. Actually, we have already had successful academies throughout Rockford. Think about CAPA, the Creative and Performing Arts Program, the Academy of Gifted Learners at Auburn, and ROTC. Think about the small learning environments already established here whose survival is threatened, such as Roosevelt Alternative High School and Page Park. Last year, ACE High School was eliminated.

We want to see more career and college readiness and improvement of academic and social skills throughout our district. We want to see more interdisciplinary and project-based learning. We want to solve our truancy problems and ameliorate crime problems in our community. Finally, we want to see our students succeed in college or their career choices so they can live productive lives.

However, recognize our backgrounds as professional educators by giving us a seat at the decision-making table. When Dr. JoAnn Shaheen and Barbara Oehlke, both honorable and lifelong educators, were denied access in the selection process at the committee level of Alignment Rockford, I knew something was amiss. (They were told they could attend meetings, but they could not ask questions.)

Another long-tenured teacher thought perhaps she had too much experience, and that’s why she was excluded from the committee structure of Alignment Rockford. Too much experience and expertise! Really? By excluding teachers, I continue to be suspicious of Alignment Rockford. They need teacher input and buy-in for this concept to survive and thrive.

Most teachers I know are creative and critical thinkers. If our students and parents value us, why doesn’t Alignment Rockford?

Sticky! I much prefer sticky to slick because a true test of any proposal or program is whether it can be challenged successfully. Answer our questions openly in a public forum and listen to our concerns. Are we that threatening? Something is so wrong in the Forest City because of the exclusion of educators in planning for the future, and a lack of transparency continues.

Educate yourself by reading some of the controversy regarding academies in Nashville in the hyperlink below:

Do Metro’s public school ‘academies’ live up to promise?” by Joey Garrison, http://nashvillecitypaper.com/content/city-news/do-metros-public-school-academies-live-promise.

Jane Hayes is a Roosevelt Alternative High School teacher and a member of Watchdogs for Ethics in Education.

From the April 25-May 1, 2012, issue

4 Comments

  1. VeryModest

    April 25, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    You are forgetting one thing here Jane, the administration and its “team” don’t really care what anyone thinks or says on this topic as this is a done deal. The powers to be are manipulating the media on this topic, as they have done on everything else concerning the schools. They have an agenda and they plan to implement it, period – end of story. Any attempts by the administration to garner public input and support is just smoke and mirrors.

  2. EmmettBrown

    April 26, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    While I have to charitably assume good intentions on the part of the WEE group, they make it awfully hard to maintain any benefit of the doubt.

    Let me state up front that I support the high school academies proposal, and I’ve done some in-depth research on which to base my opinion. I only wish WEE would do the same on both counts. My comments below have weaved in some of this objective data that Ms. Hayes’ opinion piece should have responsibly included.

    In all of WEE’s conspiracy-tinged howling as our self-annointed watchdogs, they have never once advanced or promoted a constructive, comprehensive, actionable school improvement plan. Precisely what does WEE propose, what research supports it, how would it be implemented, and what would it cost? I’m sorry, but the tactical laundry list offered above by Ms. Hayes doesn’t make that grade.

    Either WEE is content with the current miserable education outcomes they helped create as former teachers, or they don’t care to make the effort to prepare and submit to the community a meaningful strategy for parents, taxpayers and public school owners to consider. Or both.

    All I ever hear from WEE is cynical–borderline paranoid–carping and crying that Benjamin Franklin aptly described when he said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain, and most fools do.”

    Reading WEE’s periodic rantings in this paper and hearing their shrill public comments offer very instructive insight into the group’s attitude and approach. I smell a toxic organizational stew recipe of a gallon of “we-are-the-education-professionals-so-back-off” combined with a pint of “anything-business-people-touch-is-tainted-with-self-interest” with a cup of “don’t-rock-the-status-quo-boat” with a cup of “don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts” and a pinch of “not-invented-here.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I love teachers and appreciate the hard work most of them put into their profession. And the problems of our education system are multifaceted and not easily solved. However, I believe the WEE group has revealed its lock-step alignment with a teachers union that seems to have a self-serving obsession with pay raises and gold-plated benefits rather than a collaborative commitment to busting up Rockford’s unacceptable norm through true innovation.

    Now to some of the “facts” contained in Ms. Hayes’ diatribe.

    The $500 million Race To The Top funds were awarded to the entire state of Tennessee, and are spread across all major cities and across several years. What data is offered by Ms. Hayes to support the assertion that the Nashville academies program received a “major portion” of the federal grant? And perhaps most importantly, the initial RTTT monies came about 5 years after Nashville began implementing their academies program–not before implementation as Ms. Hayes suggests in her deceptive insinuation.

    The Nashville CityPaper article cited above is really more neutral about the academy program in Nashville than it is the scathing exposé WEE would have you believe. Aside from the personnel shake-up highlighted in the initial paragraphs (who knows the real story, and is it relevant to Rockford?), the meat of the piece focuses on the federally-backed MDRC report analyzing academy program outcomes.

    The primary report quote indicates mixed results: “We found that the program didn’t have any effect on [academic] outcomes–positive or negative. But [the] research found…’remarkable’ and ‘significant’ effects on post-secondary employment and earnings, labor results that did not compromise classroom achievement. Students in academies on average earned 11% more annually than their non-academy peers. That added up to about $30,000 in eight years. Not only that, [it] found that the largest effects were among young men.”

    Oh, and here’s an additional MDRC finding that didn’t make it in the CityPaper article: “The Career Academies produced an increase in the percentage of young people living independently with children and a spouse or partner. Young men also experienced positive impacts on marriage and being custodial parents.” (full report: http://www.mdrc.org/project_29_1.html)

    Seems to me many of our Rockford kids could use some of that. Or perhaps WEE just has something against young people living as families and making more money.

    The MDRC just released new data about positive academic outcomes of “smaller learning communities” which are a key feature of the academy model. Based on a study of New York City high schools, they saw “encouraging findings providing clear and reliable evidence that, in roughly six years, a large system of small public high schools can be created and can markedly improve graduation prospects for many disadvantaged students.” Here’s the link for more details–I’m sure WEE will appreciate my doing their research for them: http://www.mdrc.org/publications/560/overview.html

    Additional criticisms I’ve heard are that the academy proposal tracks kids into vocations like the European system, or ignores the academic needs of high-performing students. It’s obvious neither is true if look into the RPS proposal, which you can see for yourself offers flexibility and emphasizes college prep: http://www2.rps205.com/Newsroom/Pages/20100423-AlignmentAcademies.aspx

    And incidentally, I have observed plenty of RPS 205 teachers involved in many different ways with the Alignment Rockford committees. I think I can understand why they may not want to indulge the entitlement attitude of WEE by inviting some of their leaders to the table, only to have them bring closed-minded and insincere disruption to a necessarily collaborative effort. Nobody likes a bully.

    Finally, I attended last week’s AHS and JHS academy presentations by Dr. Jarrett and was impressed with their sensible approach based on demonstrable results in Nashville schools, which have a similar profile to RPS 205. Ms. Hayes calls the academy presentation and materials “slick.” I saw them as rational, logical, professional, and persuasive–characteristics I’d love to see in more of our high school graduates.

  3. Tina

    April 27, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    “I believe the WEE group has revealed its lock-step alignment with a teachers union that seems to have a self-serving obsession with pay raises and gold-plated benefits rather than a collaborative commitment to busting up Rockford’s unacceptable norm through true innovation.”

    Perhaps, given that you accuse WEE of distortions, you should back up your statement. I guess I could suggest that you shouldn’t get a chance to be a part of the discussion, because you are biased…but I won’t, because I believe it takes ALL OF US to make change happen. When you exclude groups because they disagree with you, don’t expect them to embrace YOUR change. And this includes some of the comments from people who say if you didn’t like the former Dr. Sheffield that you are a racist, as the head of the local YWCA suggested.

  4. EmmettBrown

    April 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Tina: I believe the facts and linked sources included in my previous comments stand on their own merits as demonstrating the inaccuracies contained in Ms. Hayes’ opinion piece which, by the way, echos the content in other WEE communications. Did you read the research reports like I did to be better informed and draw my own conclusions?

    If, as the federal research shows, the small learning community/academy model delivers statistically significant improvements in academic and economic measures, why would anyone oppose it–especially teachers/former teachers who have our kids’ best interest in mind? I wholeheartedly agree that it takes all of us to make change happen, and implementing any change won’t be easy.

    Unless WEE offers a logical, actionable alternative strategy backed up by objective research, they remain in a self-determined role on the sidelines nipping at the heels of a broad cross-section of the community trying to collaborate on how to best implement a proven model in RPS. In this case, you could apply the old Wendy’s ad slogan to WEE: “Where’s the beef?”

    I’m afraid your comments are all too indicative of the prevalent “WEE vs. THEM” attitude that attempts to intimidate those interested in progress toward school outcomes improvement. From what I can see, lots of teachers and school-level administrators have been involved in the investigation, vetting, and development of an academy program, so there’s been no exclusion of practitioners with a sincere desire to collaborate on innovation in public education–as opposed to ineffective tweaks around the edges of a broken system. I think if you asked the educators involved, most would say there’s been plenty of healthy skepticism and debate happening.

    And who said anything about Dr. Sheffield? I suggest you spend more time looking through the windshield rather than the in rear-view mirror.

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